Scottish nationalists have never been keen on Orwell. For decades, his ‘Notes on Nationalism’ has been quoted at them, with its description of their tendency as ‘power-hunger tempered by self-deception’ and the observation that ‘all nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts’. Not to mention, at risk of getting into indelicate matters, that some of the SNP’s early leading lights were on the other side of the old fascism question. But I’m happy to report a rapprochement between the two. Indeed, the Nationalists have so thoroughly warmed to their former foe that they are putting some of his ideas into practice.
Here is Orwell in 1984:
“Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed — would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper — the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed for ever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.
Here is Humza Yousaf in 2020:
“If you are stirring up religious hatred against Jews, with the intent of stirring up religious hatred in your private dwelling, with your children in the room, with friends that you’ve invited over for a dinner party, if they then act upon that stirring up of hatred and they then commit offences — which, you’re right, would then be prosecuted by the law — should the person who, with the intent of stirring up hatred, and their behaviour was threatening or abusive, should they not be culpable? Should they not receive some sort of criminal sanction?
He went on to answer his rhetorical question in the affirmative.
Yousaf is the Scottish justice minister and was speaking yesterday in response to a question about his Hate Crime and Public Order Bill. That legislation aims to create an offence of ‘stirring up hatred’ against a long list of protected characteristics: ‘race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origins; […] age; disability; religion, or, in the case of a social or cultural group, perceived religious affiliation; sexual orientation; transgender identity; variations in sex characteristics’.
Speaking or writing or behaving in a ‘threatening or abusive’ manner will get you done, except in the case of race and nationality where being merely ‘insulting’ will be enough to land you in the dock. Yousaf has agreed to drop a clause that would have prosecuted even those who didn’t intend to incite hatred, but everything else remains, from provisions for prosecuting actors and directors of plays (including stand-up comedians) to a new crime of ‘possessing inflammatory material’. Anyone sent down under the law could face up to seven years in prison.
He was asked at the Scottish parliament justice committee on Tuesday whether there would be a ‘dwelling defence’ against prosecution for speech spoken in a private home. His rejection of even that smell mercy hints at just how total and authoritarian his impulses are. Prosecuting people for hateful things they say in their own homes — not physical harm but words, viewpoints, ideas — is as repressive as any law anywhere in the democratic west. It would not only smother the right to free expression but place a chokehold on privacy and the right to family life.
Since the justice minister offers a hypothetical, I’ll offer a few of my own. Say you’ve got friends round for a bite to eat — a criminal offence in itself these days — and after drink has been taken you share some ill-expressed opinions about eastern European immigration. A few nights later, your mate gets hammered and skelps a luckless Estonian while suggesting he relocate to Tallinn. As he rapidly sobers up down the cop shop, and his mind races for mitigation, he blurts out that you put the idea in his head. He’ll go down anyway but, in all likelihood, you’ll be sharing a bunk with him.
Or say you’re one of those oddballs who believes that being a man or a woman is an immutable fact of biology and you choose to preach this fringe bigotry to your children. What happens when teacher asks — as she assuredly will once this Bill becomes law — if mummy and daddy have put little Jonny/Jenny/Jxnnx in danger by failing to provide a safe environment in which to centre his/her/their gender identity? What happens when a vindictive teenager reports her Catholic mother’s views about homosexuality in revenge for being grounded? Or when the talk turns to politics at a flat-warming party and you, a Scottish nationalist five cans in, loudly proclaim the electoral benefits of a cold winter that puts thousands of drooling geriatric Unionists in their graves? You don’t know it but there’s a young Tory standing over your shoulder and she’s determined to teach your sort a lesson.
This is a Bill to turn us into a nation of informants, encouraging children to turn in their parents, husbands to report their wives and in-laws to view their relatives’ drunken, unpleasant sendthembackism as a police matter. The society this law would foster is the kind people used to come here to escape.
If we are not free in our own homes, we are not free. Bigotry, like charity, often begins at home but there are some aspects of human frailty that we just cannot fix — at least not overnight. Law is a tool for regulating behaviour, not remoulding men’s souls. Pace Robert P. George, you can’t make men moral; you can only give them guardrails, incentives and sanctions. Yousaf doesn’t want to erect guardrails, he wants to drive vice out of our hearts.
The justice minister has spoken powerfully about the hatred to which he is subjected for being an ethnic minority and a Muslim. The prejudice he faces is reprehensible and those behind it contemptible. I wish I could will away these hurtful and demeaning words because he shouldn’t have to see and hear them. But Yousaf cannot use the powers of the Scottish parliament to get even with every knuckle-dragger who has ever sent him a bilious tweet, to chase them into their homes and dare them to utter a wrong word under penalty of losing their liberty, their marriage, their children, their job, and the roof over their head. He cannot eliminate thoughtcrime but if he’s determined to try, he should start by building more prisons. He’s going to need them.